South Asia

Baba Ramdev: India's campaigning guru battles corruption

Indian yoga guru Ramdev speaks as he shows support to the hunger strike by 73-year-old Indian activist Anna Hazare in New Delhi, India, Friday, April 8, 2011

The key to healthy living, according to Baba Ramdev, is knowing how to breathe.

It is a simple message that has won the yoga teacher, or guru, from a poor north Indian background, fame, fortune, an extraordinary self-confidence, his very own Scottish island, and a platform for some strong and controversial opinions.

He has now embarked on a campaign against corruption, the big issue in India at the moment, and he says he will launch his own political movement in June to contest the next election.

He may not stand much of a chance of actually winning anything, but as I discovered on my trip to his headquarters near the Hindu holy town of Haridwar, he is not a man to ignore.

He claims to keep no personal wealth for himself, but the organisation he runs is hugely rich.

Baba Ramdev's base, immaculately clean, decorated with ornamental trees and filled with piped religious chanting, is spread over 500 acres.

It is home to a university, a hospital, an Ayurvedic medicine factory, modern apartment blocks to accommodate 10,000 devotees at a time, and an auditorium so vast you could park a couple of aircraft inside.

Just after dawn, on the day I visit, it is filled with a loud humming sound as about 3,000 people, all sitting cross-legged on the floor slowly exhale the word "Om" .

The guru is sitting on a raised platform, wrapped in orange robes. Behind his thick black beard, he is youthful looking, with a lopsided grin.

Television cameras are filming the whole three-hour lesson, and it will be shown, his people tell me, in 200 different countries to a global audience of 100 million viewers.

That figure sounds suspiciously high, but there is no doubt at all that Baba Ramdev does have a large, and devoted following from across Indian society.

'Oxygen medicine'

"I watch a lot of TV at home and that's where I first came across this swami. We have even shown our children how to follow his breathing exercises, and he has changed all our lives in a nice way," Sunita Khokar, who travelled from her home in a wealthy Delhi suburb to attend a week of yoga classes, told me.

"He's doing a wonderful job for the country. He's brought yoga to everyone," her husband, OP Khokar, who works for an oil company, agreed.

The guru claims, and his followers believe, that his breathing exercises can have a profound effect on a person's body.

"Oxygen is the supreme medication - a medication for every human being," he told me.

"When you do my breathing exercises you are giving extra oxygen to the body and this oxygen can treat your cells, can even correct the structure of your cells," he said. "This is beneficial to asthma, bronchitis, allergies, general weakness and auto immune disorders."

Meditation hall - Baba Ramdev
Baba Ramdev has made controversial statements, saying his exercises can treat cancer

In the past Baba Ramdev has also said that his exercises can treat cancer and help treat HIV/Aids. He has even filed a case in India's Supreme Court challenging the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality, arguing that it too can be "cured" with yoga.

Views such as these make him a dangerous man, argues Sanal Edamaruku, who heads the Rationalist Association of India, which sets out to expose the bogus claims of India's many gurus and other quasi-religious figures.

He says that Baba Ramdev exaggerates the beneficial properties of his various health treatments as well as his television viewing figures.

"Baba Ramdev stands against progress, and he stands against the medical knowledge that we have acquired," he told me. "So if he becomes a politician and is taken seriously then that will become a danger for India."

Corruption touchstone

But while some of his views might be extremely eccentric, to say the least, Baba Ramdev has certainly entered the mainstream in picking corruption as the issue with which to launch his political career.

The government's popularity has been ebbing away since its former telecoms minister was accused last year of presiding over what could be the country's biggest ever fraud, which the government's own auditor estimated had cost the state about $40bn (£24.5bn).

Baba Ramdev was one of the high-profile supporters of a nationwide protest in April which forced the government to change the way its new anti-corruption law was being drawn up.

Other protesters went on hunger strike and talked about Mahatma Gandhi, but Baba Ramdev called for corrupt politicians to be hanged and said their corpses should mummified, and then hanged as well.

In some ways he is the Indian equivalent of an American TV evangelist or right-wing "shock jock". He says he is a patriot and that the country has been let down by its politicians.

"These corrupt crooks, these cheats, these traitors rob us of our own wealth, and that really pains me," he told me. "We should be 50 times richer than Britain, but why are we poorer?"

Meditation hall - Baba Ramdev
Baba Ramdev's headquarters includes a massive auditorium for devotees to practise yoga

Baba Ramdev disapproves of a lot of things to do with the modern world, for example, saying that Indians should reject the English language. But his own rise has matched India's own recent economic success story.

He says his father was an illiterate farmer and I spoke to shopkeepers in Haridwar market who remembered him roaming around on his bicycle speaking about the benefits of yoga just 15 years ago.

"But today, look at me!" he says, "billions of people love me, they have faith in me, and I too have faith in myself.

"That's why I am confident of the things that I say - and yes I am confident of changing this corrupt system."

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